On the afternoon of Sept. 25, 2002, a group of marine biologists vacationing on Isla San José, in Baja California Sur, Mexico, came upon a couple of whales stranded along the beach. A quick assessment indicated that they had died quite recently. The scientists radioed a passing vessel and sent a message to a colleague at a nearby marine-mammal laboratory, who came to the beach to do an examination.
They were beaked whales, of which there are 20 known species. Relatively small members of the cetacean family, they resemble outsize dolphins, and because of their deep-diving ways, they are among the least observed and understood. Curiously, the stranding on Isla San José followed by just one day the stranding of at least 14 other beaked whales 5,700 miles away along the Canary Islands beaches of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. Rescuers there worked feverishly to water down the whales and keep them cool. They all eventually died, however, and some of their bodies were immediately sent to the nearby city Las Palmas de Gran Canaria for analysis.
It is nearly impossible to pinpoint the precise cause of a whale’s stranding. Theories invariably include factors like the straying of a sick and dying whale leader, faithfully followed by the members of his pod, or sudden shallows along the shores of a migratory route. The two strandings in September 2002, however, did have something intriguing in common. It was noted by the Canary Islands rescuers that naval vessels were carrying out exercises that day not far offshore, a situation that had accompanied four other mass whale strandings on Canary Islands beaches since 1985. And while no such military exercises were being conducted off the beaches of Isla San José, the vessel that the scientists radioed turned out to be a research ship dragging an array of powerful underwater air guns that were repeatedly set off the previous morning in the course of seismic tests of the region’s ocean floor.
The suspicion of a causal relationship between whale strandings and either seismic tests or the use of new high-tech sonar tracking devices in military-training exercises had been mounting for some time. Similar coincidences had been noted off the coasts of Brazil, the Bahamas, the Galápagos Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Japan, as well as in the waters off Italy and Greece. Necropsies performed on a number of the whales revealed lesions about their brains and ears. The results of the examinations performed on the Canary Islands whales, however, added a whole other, darker dimension to the whale-stranding mystery. In addition to bleeding around the whales’ brains and ears, scientists found lesions in their livers, lungs and kidneys, as well as nitrogen bubbles in their organs and tissue, all classic symptoms of a sickness that scientists had naturally assumed whales would be immune to: the bends.
It might sound like something out of a bad sci-fi film: whales sent into suicidal dashes toward the ocean’s surface to escape the madness-inducing echo chamber that we humans have made of their sound-sensitive habitat. But since the Canary Islands stranding in 2002, similar necropsy results have turned up with a number of beached whales, and the deleterious effects of sonar and other human-generated sounds on ocean ecosystems have been firmly established.
As described in a 2005 report published by the Natural Resources Defense Council, “Sounding the Depths II: The Rising Toll of Sonar, Shipping and Industrial Ocean Noise on Marine Life,” oceans that as recently as 100 years ago had been one vast, ongoing whale and piscine chorus have now essentially become senses-wilting miasmas of human-made noise. At a 2004 International Whaling Commission symposium, more than 100 scientists signed a statement asserting that the association between sonar and whale deaths “is very convincing and appears overwhelming.”
The question of sonar’s catastrophic effects on whales even reached the Supreme Court last November, in a case pitting the United States Navy against the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The council, along with other environmental groups, had secured two landmark victories in the district and appellate courts of California, which ruled to heavily restrict the Navy’s use of sonar devices in its training exercises.
The Supreme Court, however, in a 6-to-3 decision widely viewed as a setback for the environmental movement, overturned parts of the lower-court rulings, faulting them for, in the words of Chief Justice John Roberts’s majority opinion, failing “properly to defer to senior Navy officers’ specific, predictive judgments,” thereby jeopardizing the safety of the fleet and sacrificing the public’s interest in military preparedness by “forcing the Navy to deploy an inadequately trained antisubmarine force.”
In his decision, Roberts went on to minimize, in a fairly dismissive tone, the issue of harm to marine life: “For the plaintiffs, the most serious possible injury would be harm to an unknown number of the marine animals that they study and observe.”
(This is a ten-part article, visit the New York Times website for the continuation — http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/12/magazine/12whales-t.html?_r=4&hp) Charles Siebert, The New York Times